Recorded: 09 Sep 2003
Lucky Jim is, of course, the title for a book. A very bad book by Kingsley Amis. And I say a very bad book, but I think it reads appallingly today. But it was a book that was very popular in the mid ‘50s. Jim read it. It’s about this, you know, hapless academic who ends up, you know, rather luckily getting the pretty girl in the story, but having created a lot of disasters for other people along the way.
It’s very much a book of it’s time. You know, it’s a book about provincial academic life in 1950’s Britain. And it’s not a very great novel, I think. I think The Double Helix had it been called “Honest Jim” will go down in history as a better work of art than Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
When I say work of art, it’s not a novel, but it is in a sense a novel. It’s a non fiction novel, which is phrase that someone used. I think Peter Medawar may have used about it. It’s a very good description. Of course, there’s also Lord Jim, which is a great work of art and is a great novel. And it also about a person sort of tossed upon the sea of events, literally in this case, you know, a maritime sea; Conrad’s famous book. So I do think that in the tradition of Lord Jim, Lucky Jim and then Honest Jim is a very nice one. In some ways, it would be rather nice if The Double Helix had been called Honest Jim.
But it brings home the point that The Double Helix is a work of art like those. It is a novel. It’s a novel about true things that happened. But the whole book begins like a novel; it sets up characters, very strong characters. The pen portrait of Francis Crick in the first chapter is quite unforgettable. The portraits of Rosalind Franklin and Wilkins are also unforgettable; unforgettably rude, but also unforgettably kind. And then the portrait of Jim Watson that emerges in the pages that follow is, of course, equally rude and equally kind and seen through the eyes of a young man in a way that Kingsley Amis couldn’t achieve in my view.
Matt Ridley is a journalist and a leading science writer. He earned his Ph.D. in zoology from Oxford University in 1983. He worked as a correspondent and editor for The Economist, a columnist for Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph and as editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.
His books include Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters ; Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human; and Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code. His books have been short-listed for many literary awards.
He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Ridley is the honorary life president of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s park devoted to life science that he founded in 1996. He is chairman of Northern Rock plc, and other financial services firms.
In 1996, Ridley first visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and made James D. Watson’s acquaintance. In 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a visiting professor at the lab.